Books in Buildings in Books

In 1997 the British Library moved to its new building in St Pancras, which I remember reading was designed to roughly resemble a stack of books. Very roughly. It seems that other libraries had a similar idea but decided to be less abstract, much less abstract.

First off, Cardiff Public Library, which has built this (unfortunately) temporary covering for the building until it’s completed. I partly agree with the sentiments here (where I got the images) that the installation should be permanent, but that the books should change. I’m sure book publishers could provide the panels, both advertising the book (should people want to buy it) and the library (if they want to borrow it). It’s interesting how the books are all modern bestsellers, I’ll get to that later.


Then there’s the Kansas City Public Library, where the installation is permanent, on a much larger scale, and is designed to conceal the library’s car park. Here the public were asked to nominate books that they felt represented Kansas City. I’m not sure how Lord of the Rings meets that criteria, and I’m sure the last time I read Romeo and Juliet it wasn’t set in the mid-west, but there’s a hell of a lot I don’t know about Kansas City so I’m sure there’s a perfectly valid set of connections there. Mind you, notice here that all the books are great works, classics, high points of Western literature, which is a bit of a contrast with the Cardiff choices.

Now, I have some entirely unsubstantiated wild guesses about why this might be. I could suggest that the Cardiff Library is taking a deliberately populist stance, trying to make itself appear more relevant to “today’s busy Welshman and woman” and not as some ivory-tower isolated repository of dead knowledge. The British Press does tend to have a schizophrenic view of cultural establishments, either they’re lauding some wonderful new Establishment, preserving and restoring Great British Culture, or slagging off yet another white elephant, a waste of money, ignoring the sensible wishes of the Great British Public who Couldn’t Give A Toss.

The Kansas Library on the other hand, like other American city libraries, is likely to be regarded as an educational institution in its own right and an asset, worthy of city pride. Not forgetting that educational institutions in the US are big business, I would hazard a guess that city residents would have some pride invested in their city having a big library, it shows an educated population, and an educated population must have been able to afford college, so Kansas City must be a prosperous place indeed, well worth investing in. So they pick great works, because they represent learning and achievement better than books you could pick up at the checkout line at Wal-Mart.

Oh, and I’d just like to say that philosophical musings aside, I think both of these are bloody marvellous, and we should see more of this kind of thing.